I have a confession: I don’t really care about a character being relatable.
Let me rephrase that: I don’t need a character to be like me in order to connect with them.
That may sound like a novel concept considering relatability is one of the “buzzwords” of fiction (as writer Matt Colville would call it)1, but it’s true. I don’t really care about whether a character is like me. I don’t need a character to have two X chromosomes to understand them.
I don’t even look for relatability when I dive into a new story, though it’s nice to find something universally appealing in a character.
No, the main thing I seek in a story is emotional sincerity.
I consider a story emotionally sincere when its characters have genuine, understandable emotions and reactions; basically, characters react to things like a real person would. YouTube video essayist Just Write adds that emotional sincerity also includes letting emotional moments play out rather than constantly interrupting them2—even at the risk of looking cheesy or melodramatic.
Because emotional sincerity is the biggest thing pulling me into a story, I’m not a big action flick fan. It’s not that I hate explosions (who doesn’t like a gorgeous fire plume bursting in the sky?); it’s just these types of films don’t usually give their characters time to exist outside of the plot, to show who they really are. And if I don’t know who the characters are by seeing them emotionally react to things, I won’t connect with them. And if I don’t connect with the characters, I won’t really care about what’s going on.
I experienced this most intensely with the anime Aldnoah.Zero, which ironically was written by one of my favorite modern anime writers: Gen Urobuchi. His season one of cop/psychological-thriller Psycho-Pass was phenomenal for both action-seekers and deep-thinkers. Puella Magi Madoka Magicka became a cult classic nearly overnight for its genre-spinning reversal of expectations and well-led plot twists. But Aldnoah fell flat for me.
Why? I couldn’t connect with the protagonist… because he displayed nearly no emotions.
|Does this look like the face of a
protagonist to you? 2014 A-1 Pictures
Though the protagonist Inaho often talks to himself about strategy, we never see why he personally feels he needs to win. We know he cares about his sister and other characters in the show, but to what degree, and why? We never get a good gauge on that, because we never see him emotionally reacting to any situation. Is he only mildly fond of people? Does he just protect others out of a sense of duty rather than compassion or desire? I have no idea. The show never even explains why he’s so emotionally detached and never shows him struggling with the fact; he’s never frustrated at not being able to understand others’ emotions; he’s never aggravated by the fact he can’t connect.
I can’t tell you who Inaho is. I can’t tell you what he really wants. He just exists.
|Shota Aizawa. He cares, really! 2017 Bones
You may think it’s logical, stoic characters I have a problem with, but that’s hardly the case. Shota “Eraser Head” Aizawa—a typical stoic, grumpy, hard-nosed guy—is one of my favorite characters of My Hero Academia. Because while initially he seems to have almost no emotions or personality, the show offers hints in little things he says and does that prove he really does care. And that’s all I need.
As soon as you create a character who genuinely feels and desires things—that’s when you’ve got my attention.
I start to care about the characters. My heart aches for them when they suffer loss. I cheer for them when they face an obstacle head-on.
Those are the kinds of characters I want to see, because they’re emotionally sincere.
I started thinking I must be a weirdo for prioritizing this over a character’s relatability, so I was shocked to find I’m not alone. Fellow writer and superhero-lover Vaughn Roycroft wrote a fantastic article on how Wonder Woman genuinely moved him. He speculated it was the film’s emotional sincerity that generated its positive feedback and box office success.3
And for another advocate of emotional sincerity, look no further than Wonder Woman’s director, Patty Jenkins.
“Did you say cheesy?” she questions an interviewer when asked about the film’s takeaway.
Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity…
I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional…4
There’s nothing wrong with relating to characters, connecting to them because you see a part of yourself in them. It’s just not the way I personally best connect to a story.
I don’t need to see myself in a character; I need to see the character being a real person. That’s the crux of emotional sincerity: letting characters live out the good, the bad, and all the messy stuff in between, without trying to hamstring their reactions with too many jokes or too much grimdark or too much cynicism.
The stories that let people be people are the kinds of stories I love. And, like Roycroft and Jenkins, those are the kinds of stories I want to tell too.
Notes and References:
- Matt Colville, “Explaining vs. Engaging,” YouTube video, 11:18, January 30, 2017.
- Just Write, “What Writers Should Learn from Wonder Woman,” YouTube video, 9:39, June 23, 2017.
- Vaughn Roycroft, “Heartened by Wonder Woman—The Case for Sincere Storytelling,” Writer Unboxed (blog), 1. June 19, 2017, accessed August 29, 2018.
- Patty Jenkins, qtd. in Cara Buckley, “The Woman Behind ‘Wonder Woman,’” The New York Times, June 1, 2017, accessed August 29, 2018.
All photos are screenshots taken from Crunchyroll and are used under US “Fair Use” laws.